The Most American Doughnut Is Cambodian
In Los Angeles, doughnut shops are a foot in the door for Cambodian immigrants
At first glance the typical California Cambodian donut shop seems downright old-timey—the old fashioned doughnuts stand out with their crowns of cracked cake. These jagged, splayed edges come from a longer frying time at a low temperature that keeps the donut confused about whether to sink or float. The apple fritter, too, is darker, bigger, and more rough hewn than what you can find at national donut chains. The biscuity fist-sized nuggets of buttermilk donuts have the tang of Americana straight out of some fresh country kitchen. Though there may be boba tea on the menu, or a small Buddhist wall hanging in the back room, the main event, the doughnuts, have no trace of Cambodian flavor.
Like Greek Diners and Afghani fried chicken stores, the Cambodian doughnut phenomenon came from many families who followed each other into business and then learned that business well. Unlike some of the immigrant industry niches, there is no dispute about the genesis of the trend—it was a man named Ted Ngoy, the father of all the Los Angeles-area Cambodian doughnut stores. Ngoy didn’t try his first doughnut until the age of 35, when he arrived with his family in Southern California as a refugee from Khmer Rouge. The doughnut business spoke to him, and he joined a training class at then-dominant California doughnut chain, Winchell’s. There he rose through the ranks, managed his own franchise, and in 1976, bought his own store. He kept the name, Christy’s, and used techniques he had learned at Winchell’s. As his business grew, he founded more doughnut stores. He took on other Cambodians new to the US as managers, and issued loans to help strivers strike out on their own. Today 80 percent of independent donut shops in LA are Cambodian-owned.
K & K Donuts is one of half a dozen or so donut oases within about a mile radius on Sunset Boulevard. Angela has a son about the age of mine so we spend a few minutes talking sippy cups before we get down to donuts. Her favorite in house treat is not a donut, but a cinnamon roll—the middle of the spiral, to be precise, where the cinnamon-sugar is at its most intense. She sees it as a dessert more than a breakfast food, “whenever I finish eating, I’m looking around for something sweet.” She moved here from Cambodia 12 years ago and when I ask her what the sweets there were like, she tells me she forgot.
Mercredi Uy of Donut Farm, also finds Cambodian sweets forgettable, telling me the only one he really enjoys are the jelly / cream / azuki bean sundae cups that are popular all around Asia. That is not because he has an underdeveloped palate—after growing up in LA’s Cambodian American community, running a doughnut store with his mother, attending the Cordon Bleu, working as a private chef, and returning to the doughnut business in its dressed-up, vegan-organic incarnation, Uy knows his cuisines. When he bakes, he makes his dough from scratch with sourdough starter rather than with prefab donut mixes that rely on baking powder and commercial yeast.
Cambodians stick to these standard mixes, to the American style, Uy thinks, because of a national adaptability. In Cambodia, the cuisine is already a hybrid of flavors, borrowing from Thai, Korean, and French dishes. When I ask if his banana fritters are meant as a Cambodian inspired twist on the classic apple fritter, he says that he had just been trying to use up bananas when he developed that donut, but if he were trying for a Cambodian flavor profile, he’d add a sesame glaze. Maybe with palm sugar. Or maybe he’d do a keffir lime coconut glaze.
One of Uy’s proudest creations, his kabocha squash fritter, at first looks like a unique twist on the seasonal American pumpkin spice strain of baked goods. But the cool thing about this fleshy Asian squash is that it takes its name from the Japanese pronunciation of Cambodia. Doughnut makers, like their doughnuts, have a way of making things come full circle.